Thursday, July 16, 2009

Loaves and Fishes: 'Temporary' charity a fixture after 27 years

One of Minnesota's largest meal programs for poor people was intended to be temporary back in 1982. Today, Loaves and Fishes has expanded from two dining sites to eight, where volunteers serve more than a thousand people each week day.

President Ronald Reagan was in his first term 27 years ago as the nation entered a recession. Reagan's popularity soared as the charismatic chief executive exhorted Americans to have confidence in themselves and the country.

Then in the next breath in many of his public pronouncements, Reagan criticized welfare programs and the people who used them.

"Virtually every American who shops in a local supermarket is aware of the daily abuses that take place in the food stamp program, which has grown by 16,000 percent in the last fifteen years," Reagan said.

True to his campaign promises, Reagan reined in a batch of social programs upon taking office.

The result, Edward Flahavan said, was visible almost overnight.

"We saw people sleeping in their cars, in the bushes, on the church doorsteps," Flahavan said. "I'd go over to say mass in the morning and I'd have to step over bodies."

In l981, Flahavan was the pastor at St. Stephen's Catholic Church in south Minneapolis, where Sister Roseann Giguere was a member.

On a 1981 trip to Milwaukee, Giguere visited a local Catholic parish that had started a dining program for poor people called Loaves and Fishes. Giguere said the diners included families who suddenly found themselves in trouble because of cuts to social programs.

"Either their finances or home or whatever, and they needed help right then and there," She remembered.

Flahavan remembers when Sister Giguere returned from Milwaukee the St. Stephen's members decided to create their own Loaves and Fishes dining program for poor people.

"We can't stand the sights and the notion of this kind of grinding poverty in the world's richest nation," she said. "So I was naive enough to think this would last maybe a couple of years."

Because of a snowstorm, the very first Loaves and Fishes meal set for a January evening in l982 at St. Stephen's almost didn't happen. The St. Stephen's member making the night's meal called to say she was snowed in.

She called the Minneapolis Fire Department and explained her predicament as Flahavan and the others waited at the church for the food.

"So the fire truck arrived, and out jumps into the snow her team of people and her hot meal," Giguere said.

Nearly three decades later, Loaves and Fishes serves 1,500 people a day at eight Twin Cities dining locations. It's one of the largest meal programs in the state.

Teams of volunteers prepare and serve the weekday Loaves and Fishes evening meals. Although he's no longer a priest, Flahavan still regularly helps serve meals.

There's no letup in the growth at the Loaves and Fishes sites. The number of meals served rose nine percent last year over the previous year.

Numbers this year are running ahead of that pace, at a time when Loaves and Fishes, like many charitable groups helping the poor, watch their revenues decline.

Loaves and Fishes also refers people asking for help. Many of the diners, Flahavan said, have problems including addiction, mental illness, unemployment.

"We learned very quickly that once you start to help people you're going to get drawn into their multiple needs," Flahavan said.

Sister Giguere said a soup kitchen doesn't go far enough to help people in need.

"Volunteerism that fills in one meal is not adequate," Giguere said. "It's the structural change that we, minimum wage that allows them to live, they need health coverage, I mean there's a whole other realm of need for humans to have fulfilled." Minnesota Public Radio

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